A prominent Soviet and Armenian composer, Alexander Arutiunian fused Russian and Armenian musical traditions to form his own unique style. His compositions range from his “Motherland Cantata” (for which he won the Stalin prize in 1948) to his violin concerto (Armenia-88) in homage to a devastating earthquake.
He also wrote a series of well-regarded brass and woodwind concertos. Of these, the trumpet concerto, composed in 1950, is one of his best-known works and a staple of the trumpet solo literature. It is composed in seven sections played without a break. A dramatic improvisatory prelude transitions to a spritely allegro energico; slower introspective sections are interspersed with a periodic return to the “energico” theme. A brilliant cadenza and coda end the concerto with a flourish.
Brahms composed his violin concerto in the last half 1878, close on the heels of his second symphony. He worked on it closely with the Hungarian violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim (in fact, Joachim also wrote the cadenza most often heard in contemporary performances).
While originally conceived in four movements, this concerto has three — an opening Allego non troppo, a middle movement Adagio, and the final Allegro giocoso. It is practically symphonic in scope, with alternating passages by the orchestra and soloist designed to fully explore the rich thematic material.
The first movement opens with a lengthy orchestral exposition which contains most of the thematic material used by both the soloist and orchestra — a calm rising and falling triad (faintly reminiscent of the second symphony); an intense rising chromatic passage played in unison; a mysterious and soft descending three-note pattern; and an agitated and jagged dotted-note passage setting up the first entrance of the solo violin. The violin picks up on these themes and expands them, both in fiery passagework and lush melodies. The lengthy cadenza is a masterwork by Joachim, a tour-de-force of virtuosity and melody.
The second movement Adagio begins with a hushed wind choir, featuring a notable oboe solo, which is echoed by the solo violin. After an impassioned development, the opening theme returns with a violin obbligato on top of the original wind theme. The last movement is a gypsy-like rondo, ending with the theme restated as a march.
The premiere of the concerto was given in Budapest on November 9, 1881, with Brahms as soloist, and was an immediate success. He proceeded to perform the piece in many cities across Europe.
Here’s a favorite rendition of the second-movement scherzo.
Schumann composed this masterpiece for four French horns and orchestra in 1849, one of his most productive musical years. Rarely performed because of its unusual instrumentation and difficulty, the Konzertstück is rich in inventiveness and lyricism. While titled a “concertpiece,” it is essentially a concerto for four horn soloists.
There are three interlinked movements, played without a break. The initial “Lebhaft” opens with two strong orchestra chords, immediately followed by rising horn arpeggios heralding the main theme. The slow “Romanze” movement features a tender theme in the oboes, solo ‘cello and violas, picked up in turn by the horns; a flowing chorale movement appears in the middle of the movement. The lively last movement is full of horn figurations. It features brisk dialogue between the orchestra and soloists, and a short chorale interlude based on the middle movement, before drawing to a bravura ending.
Sir Edward Elgar was a dominant force in English music at the turn of the 20th century. His magnificent ‘cello concerto was composed in 1919; more recently, it has become identified with the great ‘cellist Jacqueline du Pré, who made it into her signature piece (and is used in the movie Hilary and Jackie).
This four movement work displays an astonishing sweep of emotion and melody, from tragedy and pathos to exuberance. After a declamatory ‘cello opening, the first movement settles into an introspective lilt, punctuated by solo flourishes and dramatic orchestral statements. It is followed without a break by the witty second movement, with its brilliant solo passagework and lightly textured accompaniment. A romantic adagio allows the ‘cello to display its singing qualities to the fullest. The dramatic last movement is at times almost operatic, with the ‘cello and orchestra playing off each other’s themes; towards the end, themes from the adagio and opening movements make an encore appearance before a dash to the dramatic finish.
This is Dvořák’s last concerto, largely written in 1894-5 during his time in New York. Dvorak had come to the United States in 1892 in response to an invitation to become the head of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, and stayed here until 1895. Dvorak composed a number of his best-know works during his American interlude, including his 9th (“New World”) Symphony, the “American” String Quartet (Op. 96), and the ‘cello concerto. He was not initially inclined to write a concerto featuring the ‘cello; he changed his mind after attending a concert in New York of a ‘cello concerto by Victor Herbert, which inspired him to write his own.
The first movement opens with a quiet statement of the theme in the woodwinds, gradually rising to a boisterous rendition by the full orchestra. The wistful second theme is introduced by the horn. Both themes are featured in the solo ‘cello, the first theme now reappearing as a heraldic restatement. There is a constant interweaving and interplay of soloist and orchestra, punctuated by solo pyrotechnics that grow out of the thematic material. A number of “grandioso” passages by the orchestra also feature the first theme in heroic fashion.
The introspective second movement begins softly with clarinets; the lyrical melody is picked up in turn by the soloist. The middle of the movement is based on a theme from a Czech song (“Leave me Alone”), written as an homage to his beloved sister-inlaw Josefina, who was in failing health. A solo cadenza is accompanied by flute and other woodwinds; a hushed passage featuring ‘cello harmonics brings the movement to a close.
The third movement is based on a robust theme introduced by the winds, then picked up by the soloist and orchestra in turn. The end of the movement also features another section of the song “Leave me Alone,” this time in the solo violin accompanying the ‘cello. The movement gradually winds down into a sighing whisper; a short rousing conclusion brings the concerto to a triumphant close.
This violin concerto is an early work by Bach, probably written in the 1720s while he was resident in Weimar. It is one of his most frequently-recorded and beloved works, and a masterful example of interplay between the violin soloist and string orchestra.
The first movement allegro starts off with a vigorous rising three-note motif, repeated in major and minor keys throughout, and contrasted with rising and falling 16th-note scales.
The second movement is a deeply felt and introspective adagio. Its main theme is an ostinato (repeating) figure in the ‘celli, basses and continuo, against which the solo violin weaves intricate figurations in an intimate musical exchange.
The last movement is a triple-meter rondo, in which the rousing string theme is interspersed with solo violin variations.
Written by the young Strauss for his father, a virtuoso horn player, this concerto is one of the best-known and beloved in the French Horn solo repertoire. While not as musically complex as other Strauss compositions, it contains unmistakable harmonic and musical elements which instantly mark it as Strauss’ work.
Although formally divided into three movements, it is played as a continuous work with no interruption between movements. The first and last movements’ themes are based on a heroic horn arpeggio, picked up in each instance by the orchestra and leading to a quieter, more subdued horn melody. The orchestral texture is varied, ranging from a Germanic “full orchestra” sound to chamber music-like effects (e.g., solo horn accompanied by upper woodwinds and solo ‘celli). The middle Andante is harmonically the most interesting, with unusual key shifts between A-flat minor and E major supporting dramatic expositions of lyrical horn melody.
Although compact, this concerto explores the full horn range, is challenging for the orchestra, and enjoys a large popular following.
Here’s Barry Tuckwell in a performance with the NHK Symphony Orchestra in 1987. Movement 1:
And Movement 3:
The violin concerto was Barber’s first significant commissioned work. Barber began composing the concerto in 1939 while on a trip to Switzerland. Upon the outbreak of World War II, he returned to the United States and completed the concerto later that year. The concerto was premiered by Albert Spalding with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1941. Ever since then, it has been a staple of the violin concerto repertoire.
Barber provided these program notes for the premiere performance:
The first movement — allegro molto moderato — begins with a lyrical first subject announced at once by the solo violin, without any orchestral introduction. This movement as a whole has perhaps more the character of a sonata than concerto form. The second movement — andante sostenuto — is introduced by an extended oboe solo. The violin enters with a contrasting and rhapsodic theme, after which it repeats the oboe melody of the beginning. The last movement, a perpetuum mobile, exploits the more brilliant and virtuosic character of the violin.